Yesterday, I came across a very poignant picture. It was a picture, taken at a vigil that took place on Christopher Street, N.Y. within the first five years of the AIDS. epidemic. Those dark years when we were dying by the thousands and nobody seemed to care, much less help us. HIV was a death sentence, no meds, no knowledge, no hope!
I tested positive for the HIV virus on December, 19, 1989 after enduring three years of self imposed celibacy in order to avoid HIV. Little did I know, it was already in me. That was 26 years ago. It’s been a long journey!
The air was filled with hopelessness and fear. You could see the sadness, fear and pain in people’s faces. I was still hanging out in the West Village a lot. Greenwich village, the original area where the 1969 riots of Stonewall occured, was my favorite hang out.
For those of you who are not familiar with these Riots, the Stonewall Riots were a series of impromptu and violent demonstrations by patrons of the Stonewall Inn, that was located in New York City's gay ghetto, Greenwich Village. The riots exploded in the early morning of June 28, 1969 as a result of the all too common practice of "raiding" establishments that catered to fags and drag queens. The Stonewall riots mark the birth of the modern gay liberation movement. To commemorate the Stonewall riots, New York's first annual "gay pride parade" took place the following year. There are now countless, worldwide celebrations taking place during "gay pride week" to commemorate the heroic trailblazers at the Stonewall Inn.
In the early nineties, I decided to join one of the AIDS vigils. The ritual was really beautiful and full of the conflicting emotions of pain and hope.
We started the vigil at 7th Avenue and walked down Christopher Street toward the piers. We were all carrying candles, nobody spoke. I don’t remember the details, but somehow we placed the candles on the river and watched them float away until the lights faded and died. Some floated farther and longer than others but, too soon, all of the candles flickered and died.
This was a very emotional moment, people hugged each other and cried while carrying pictures of those whose light was extinguished far too early.
Over time, these vigil type commemorations became increasingly common. As AIDS claimed more and more lives, the demographic of these vigils changed. In time, these vigils included every age group, every race, every background. These vigils became the gathering place to not only grieve, but also to hope and heal. Among the hundreds of people carrying pictures of loved ones, praying, crying, holding hands with strangers and giving support to those who needed it most were the actual people that were obviously sick.
A very common complication was Kaposi's Sarcoma. The Kaposi's Sarcoma lesions were the unmistakable mark of AIDS in those days. Seeing these manifestations of AIDS made my heart heavy. I was scared and hurt like a wounded animal, surrounded by darkness.
I will never forget these vigils. For some, it was like attending their own funeral. They became carvings in my heart. When was this going to end? Am I going to survive the crisis? How many more friends will I loose? So many questions and the answers were floating alone on the river, disappearing quietly into the night.
On our way back to 7th avenue, where the vigil started, the aura of the vigil changed dramatically. As we approached the center of the gay galaxy, 7th Ave. and Christopher Street, the driver of a shiny new blue car screamed at the crowd... “FAGGOTS!" The crowd heard it but most of us were so involved in the moment that we let it go. “One more hater”, I said to myself.
It was his bad luck that he would find himself stopped by a red light nearby. In a matter of seconds, hundreds of people who just minutes before were somber and quiet, EXPLODED in anger and frustration. The shiny, new, blue car was consumed by the crowd. They pounced on his car, pulled the screaming driver out of the car and physically lifted the car and flipped it over. The driver screamed, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Stop, STOP, that's my new car".
In a matter of minutes, the shiny, new car didn't appear to be new and certainly wasn't that shiny anymore. The car was TOTALLY destroyed. I watched the whole thing sitting on a mail box in astonishment. I had never seen anything like this in my entire life.
That day I felt very proud of being part of a community that no longer was looking for “acceptance” and "tolerance", it was demanding respect!